Can We Be Good Without God?

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #987, December 20, 1998

"From whatever vantage point one looks, it is unmistakable that there is what could be called `a moral crisis in America.' There has been, to a significant degree, `a breakdown of traditional morality.' But the answer to this -- at least the answer that is in the interests of the majority of people in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of humanity -- is not a more aggressive assertion of that `traditional morality' but winning people to a radically different morality, in the process of and as a key part of radically transforming society and the world as a whole. It is not the tightening but the shattering of tradition's chains that is called for."

Bob Avakian

In light of the power struggle around the impeachment of Clinton, the 1996 essays by Bob Avakian on the `crisis of morality' in U.S. society are both timely and insightful. These important esays include: "Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath Willian Bennett's 'Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." In the following excerpt from "Putting An End to `Sin' " he discusses communist morality.

Other selections from Avakian's essays will follow in future issues and the entire series will soon be available on our website at


"CAN WE BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD?" COMMUNISM ANSWERS "YES." This question was the title of a major article (by Glenn Tinder) in The Atlantic (December 1989), and it is a question that is frequently posed, and harped on, in contemporary society. In that article by Glenn Tinder and more generally in the posing of this question, the widely proclaimed "death of communism" figures prominently. This signals, in a kind of ironic and back-handed way, a recognition of the fact that communism has represented--and in reality continues to represent--the one hope of bringing about a (real) world where human beings are not mired in dog-eat-dog conditions and the corresponding mentality, where relations between them are not based on domination, plunder, and violence.

The answer to this question is on two levels: First, we have to be good without god, if we are going to be good at all, for the simple reason that there is no god. And second, the essential meaning of "good" in this era revolves around the abolition of all relations of oppression and exploitation and of the divisions among humanity between different and antagonistically opposed classes as well as nations--in other words, once again, the "4 Alls"* of the communist revolution--and that not only can be, but must be achieved without god, that is, without the belief in god. As Mao expressed it, "The epoch of world communism will be reached when all mankind voluntarily and consciously changes itself and the world" ("On Practice"); and that requires understanding and dealing with the world (the universe), including human beings and our society, as they really are, without the need for the invention of god(s) or supernatural forces of any kind.

With communism will come the end of "sin." If "sin" is defined as deviation from the way of god, then objectively there is not and never has been any such thing, because there is not and never has been any god. But, beyond that, when the point is reached where the material and ideological conditions exist for humanity to voluntarily and consciously change itself and the world, then there will also be no (subjective) basis for "sin," because there will no longer be a need or basis for belief in god. At that point and into the future, there will still be right and wrong, good and bad--in the sense of what does and does not conform to objective reality and does and does not contribute to forging freedom out of necessity and enhancing the ability of society and the individuals who comprise it to continue developing in an all-around way--but there will no longer be the notion of "sin."

`Sin' Is a Concept of Class Society

This notion of "sin," like the common concept of "human nature," is yet another expression of something that is not at all transcendent, unchanging and unchangeable, but on the contrary is historically and socially conditioned and is viewed differently in different eras and different societies and among different social groupings and classes within the same society.

Aristotle insisted that the concept of happiness did not apply to slaves, any more than to animals, but certainly the slaves of that time (if not the animals) did not agree with this. And in the more recent past, owners of slaves and upholders of slavery in the southern U.S., who invoked these arguments by Aristotle as justification, no doubt viewed "the nature" of the slaves, and of themselves, very differently than the slaves did.

Today, in most parts of the world, it is no longer considered "natural," or in conformity with "human nature," to have slavery, but this is because of changes in the productive forces and corresponding changes in the production relations of society, and not because of changes in "human nature"; or, perhaps it is better to put it, as Marx did, that these changes in "human nature" were brought about on the basis of changes in social productive forces and production relations and the attendant changes in the political and ideological superstructure of society ("all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature").

Yet, up until the present, with all these changes in the mode of production and in social and class relations, there have been certain general features of "human nature" that have remained fundamentally the same in different societies. This is precisely because all these societies have been marked by class division and the monopolization of economic life and thereby of political, cultural, and intellectual life by a small ruling group, or class, even though the particular forms of this class division and monopolization have differed in different eras and in different types of societies. This is why "traditions" from earlier forms of class-divided society can still be carried forward and exert a great influence on contemporary society, but why on the other hand this can involve some profound and acute contradictions, such as the following: Today, in the eyes of most people who advocate Biblical values and the "Judeo-Christian tradition," such things as slavery, a man having not only one but many wives (along with concubines) as possessions, the conquest of women as prizes of war and the gang-raping of women, as well as <%-3>the wanton slaughter of babies, are all considered great "sins"; yet such gigantic Biblical figures as David and Paul--and indeed "The Lord" himself--have all practiced and/or advocated one or more of these things in ways that the Bible treats not as sin, but as the opposite of sin.

This illustrates, from yet another angle, not only why present-day advocates of Biblically-based "traditional values" must frequently engage in rather remarkable mental gymnastics, as well as "myoptics," but more essentially why there is the historic and urgent need for the two radical ruptures represented by the communist revolution.

* The basis for communist morality is contained, in a concentrated way, in what Maoists refer to as the "4 Alls." This is drawn from the summary by Marx of what the communist revolution aims for and leads to: the abolition of all class distinctions (or "class distinctions generally"); the abolition of all the relations of production on which these class distinctions rest; the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production; and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations. (See "What Is Communist Morality?" RW No. 981.)

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